I hope peo­ple will read about these re­ally re­mark­able char­ac­ters. ...

Who is it who said our his­tory is as dull as ditch­wa­ter? I'm telling you it isn't. Ken Cuth­bert­son, au­thor of 1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada

Edmonton Journal - - INSIGHT - JAMIE PORT­MAN

Peo­ple crit­i­cized him for not fight­ing in the war, but I had great re­spect for the man. He wasn't a cow­ard — he tried to join up twice and was turned down be­cause of his hockey in­juries. Author Ken Cuth­bert­son on hockey leg­end Mau­rice (Rocket) Richard

1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada Ken Cuth­bert­son Harpercoll­ins

The in­dict­ment is harsh, but for his­to­rian Ken Cuth­bert­son, the facts are ir­refutable. Canada's long­est serv­ing prime min­is­ter was a racist.

Cuth­bert­son lev­els the charge near the end of his new book, 1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada. But such are the con­tra­dic­tions in­her­ent in the char­ac­ter of Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King that Cuth­bert­son also re­it­er­ates the vi­tal wartime role that Canada played un­der its Lib­eral PM'S of­ten mad­den­ing lead­er­ship.

In­deed, Cuth­bert­son goes so far as to ar­gue that, with­out Canada, a be­lea­guered Bri­tain might have fallen dur­ing the dark­est days of the 1939-1945 con­flict. He ar­gues that “with­out Cana­dian food, war ma­te­ri­als and fi­nan­cial aid, which in­cluded $4 bil­lion in for­giv­able loans, Bri­tain might well have suf­fered de­feat ...”

Months af­ter writ­ing th­ese words, Cuth­bert­son still stands by this as­ser­tion.

“We don't seem to have a real ap­pre­ci­a­tion th­ese days of the role that Canada played in the war,” he says by phone from his home in Kingston, Ont. “We had a mas­sive mil­i­tary com­plex. The First Cana­dian Army in Europe was over 300,000 men, and when you think about it, that's as­tound­ing for a coun­try of 11 mil­lion peo­ple. In to­tal we had a mil­lion men and women in uni­form dur­ing the war.”

And by the end of the war, Canada boasted the third largest navy in the world and had been es­sen­tial in keep­ing vi­tal At­lantic trans­porta­tion lanes open.

“Canada was cer­tainly ex­pected to sup­port Bri­tain dur­ing the war,” Cuth­bert­son says. “With­out Cana­dian ex­perts of raw ma­te­ri­als, with­out Cana­dian loans, with­out Lend-lease ar­range­ments with Roo­sevelt, when the Americans had Cana­dian in­dus­try turn­ing out war ma­te­ri­als for Eng­land, it couldn't have hap­pened ... and the con­voys were the life­line.”

Yet all this hap­pened un­der a na­tional leader who had been open in his dis­dain for the mil­i­tary and who once wrote a fan let­ter to Adolf Hitler. King's unglam­orous pres­ence hov­ers, goblin-like, over a book that sees 1945 as a sem­i­nal mo­ment in our his­tory — the year that Canada came of age.

In seek­ing to il­lu­mi­nate a time that is now three-quar­ters of a cen­tury dis­tant, Cuth­bert­son rein­tro­duces read­ers to some of its key play­ers. They in­clude al­most for­got­ten mil­i­tary fig­ures such as Gen. Henry Dun­can Cr­erar, com­man­der of the First Cana­dian Field Army, and Rear Ad­mi­ral Leonard W. Mur­ray, en­trusted with keep­ing the At­lantic con­voys run­ning.

And there are in­ter­est­ing wild cards rang­ing from mil­lion­aire ty­coon E.P. Tay­lor to Montreal Cana­di­ens su­per­star Mau­rice (Rocket) Richard, whose prow­ess made him a hero in Quebec and an ob­ject of re­sent­ment among English Cana­di­ans up­set with the French-speak­ing prov­ince for what they per­ceived as of­ten luke­warm sup­port of the war ef­fort.

In seek­ing to evoke the mood of a na­tion, Cuth­bert­son doesn't ig­nore what he calls “the great di­vide” sep­a­rat­ing French and English Canada at the time, and re­minds read­ers that 1945 was the year when Hugh Maclennan's in­flu­en­tial novel, Two Soli­tudes, was pub­lished. Cuth­bert­son, 69, looks back on his own child­hood and re­mem­bers that when he was a young­ster in the 1950s, Richard was still a light­ning rod for French-english dif­fer­ences — and un­fairly so.

“Peo­ple crit­i­cized him for not fight­ing in the war, but I had great re­spect for the man. He wasn't a cow­ard — he tried to join up twice and was turned down be­cause of his hockey in­juries.”

The then-prime min­is­ter oc­cu­pies his own pe­cu­liar bub­ble — and not just be­cause he com­muned with the spir­its of his de­ceased mother and dog. In an age of Justin-brand charisma, King's po­lit­i­cal longevity seems im­prob­a­ble if not pre­pos­ter­ous.

“Short and pudgy as a dumpling, King was bushy-browed and jowly,” Cuth­bert­son writes. Yet he was in of­fice for a to­tal of 25 years. The snap­shot images tan­ta­lize: “crafty, cun­ningly ruth­less in a machi­avel­lian way ... a mas­ter in the art of back­room wheel­ing and deal­ing ... hope­lessly in­se­cure ... a tact­less bully ... a lonely old bach­e­lor, a prude ... his mer­ce­nary be­hav­iour was jus­ti­fied, he be­lieved, be­cause he thought he had been di­vinely or­dained to lead Canada to great­ness.”

“He was weird — re­ally!” Cuth­bert­son says now. “He was a mas­ter politi­cian — yet he dithered, dithered, dithered un­til he was forced to make a de­ci­sion. And be­hind the scenes he was quite ready to put the stiletto in some­body's back and twist it when he had the op­por­tu­nity.”

Cuth­bert­son has no com­punc­tion in la­belling King a racist. The book is un­re­lent­ing in cit­ing the “ap­palling” things that hap­pened on his watch — the turn­ing away of des­per­ate East In­dian and Jewish im­mi­grants at Cana­dian ports, the re­set­tle­ment and in­car­cer­a­tion of Ja­panese Cana­di­ans in Bri­tish Columbia, the con­tin­u­ing op­er­a­tion of res­i­den­tial schools for Indige­nous chil­dren, the post­war im­po­si­tion of im­mi­gra­tion quo­tas on Blacks and Jews.

“You shake your head in won­der,” Cuth­bert­son says now, “but he was a prod­uct of his time and no­body thought twice about it.”

Cuth­bert­son finds mul­ti­ple rea­sons for see­ing 1945 as a water­shed year for Canada. In April, King and a Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion to the his­toric sign­ing of the United Na­tions Char­ter in San Fran­cisco; May saw the Canada First army ac­cept­ing Ger­many's for­mal sur­ren­der in The Nether­lands; in June the Lib­er­als were re­turned to power fed­er­ally al­though King lost his Saskatchew­an seat and could only re­turn to Par­lia­ment af­ter win­ning a by­elec­tion; with the coun­try was veer­ing to the left po­lit­i­cally, Canada's Con­ser­va­tive party pru­dently de­cided to add the word “Pro­gres­sive” to its name.

It was also the year when the first baby bonus cheques were de­liv­ered in July, sig­nalling a de­ci­sive mo­ment in the emer­gence of a so­cial wel­fare safety net. The Rocket would score 50 goals in a sin­gle sea­son. The first atom bomb would be dropped, fu­elled by Cana­dian ura­nium. And in De­cem­ber Igor Gouzenko, a non­de­script cipher clerk in Ottawa's Soviet em­bassy, would ab­scond with in­crim­i­nat­ing doc­u­ments re­veal­ing Rus­sian es­pi­onage op­er­a­tions — and in so do­ing would touch off the Cold War. And if that wasn't enough, the econ­omy was boom­ing.

It may be a tru­ism to sug­gest that peo­ple make his­tory, but Cuth­bert­son is trou­bled that so many ma­jor play­ers in the Cana­dian story have faded into ob­scu­rity.

“So I hope peo­ple will read about th­ese re­ally re­mark­able char­ac­ters. And they are re­mark­able — ev­ery­one of them. Who is it who said our his­tory is as dull as ditch­wa­ter? I'm telling you it isn't.”


Author Ken Cuth­bert­son's new book ar­gues that Canada truly came of age in 1945.

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